Two weeks after the tsunami-provoked meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan was only able to deploy two Japanese-designed and produced Monirobos (Monitoring Robots). These can safely test radiation levels that are too dangerous for humans.
According to the independent Japanese Kyodo news agency, six days after the accident, Japan asked Washington to provide robots that could operate in a radioactive environment, remove wreckage and measure radiation levels.
This call, coming from a country which had been a major player in the automation and robotics drive that made its industry the most competitive in the world in the 1980s, surprised many. Yet, it reflected diverging Japanese and US (United States) priorities in the robotics domain. The US had invested heavily over the years in space exploration and military robots, which could also be used in hazardous environments. This was not the case for Japan, where a restrictive defence policy and economic choices focused efforts on industrial and service robots.
The origins of most robots currently used in hazardous or hostile environments date back to the early 1970s when the IRA (Irish Republican Army) planted car bombs and other explosive devices in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Until 1972 the British Army relied entirely on EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) operators to neutralize these manually. After many bomb disposal operatives were killed or seriously injured it was decided to deploy a remote-controlled piece of equipment to help drag car bombs to a safe distance.
Within three weeks of the decision being taken a weapons expert had developed and built a basic machine using the chassis of a battery-operated wheelbarrow bought at his local garden centre. The machine was deployed in October 1972 and further improved over the years with the addition of various tools and sensors. By 1981 it was capable of making safe some 60 % of all explosive devices found in Northern Ireland. Some 400 of these machines were destroyed or damaged in operation, but they saved many lives. The latest version, Wheelbarrow Mk9, was launched in 2010.
Over the years the US armed forces have also supported the development of many types of robots or adapted them for use on land, in the air and under water. According to a June 2011 BBC report some 20 000 robots have been deployed by foreign forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, mainly to deal with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and for surveillance tasks.
Robots developed for use in the defence sector must be particularly robust. Often they are required to be capable of operating in contaminated CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive) environments. Their electronics must be radiation-resistant. This makes them or their derivatives ideally suited for use in industrial accidents, including those in nuclear or chemical plants.
Following Tokyo's request, the US firm iRobot sent some PackBots, capable of entering the plant and measuring radiation levels. The US subsidiary of the British global defence technology company QinetiQ also shipped several of its "Robotic Appliqué Kits", which turn compact Bobcat construction loaders into unmanned vehicles in just 15 minutes. The kits allow remote operation of dozens of Bobcat attachments and tools such as shovels, buckets or cutters to break through walls and doors and collect items. The vehicles have cameras and many other sensors. QinetiQ also sent its Talon robots equipped with CBRNE detection kits. Talons were used in New York at Ground Zero following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Underwater and aerial remotely-controlled robots were also deployed in Fukushima and elsewhere to survey sites too remote or hazardous for human intervention. Robots can be deployed in cases of natural or industrial disasters to assess damage or explore rubble for survivors in places inaccessible or too dangerous for humans or even dogs. For instance, snake- or worm-shaped robots that can wriggle their way past obstacles and report to rescuers are being developed for this purpose.
Another promising use for robots lies in waste-management, handling and separating toxic or hazardous material for recycling or further processing. Manual sorting of waste is dangerous owing to the presence of bacteria, toxic chemicals and sharp or heavy items, and is restricted or banned in many countries. Finland's ZenRobotics has designed a robotic waste-sorting system to deal with this.
Its "Recycler" uses multiple sensors to separate recyclable materials from other refuse in commercial, industrial and construction waste, and learns as it works. It is being tested in collaboration with SITA, the Finnish subsidiary of a global water and waste management company. The prospects for further development in this field are encouraging, as recycling valuable material is a priority everywhere.
In the 20th century, many industrial or consumer systems and products were direct spin-offs from research in the defence and security sphere. In recent decades, the trend has evolved to a more balanced flow, with parts or systems developed by and for one of the sectors being used by the other. Robotics provides many examples of this, as military robots have been used in the aftermath of industrial accidents and civilian machines have been adapted for military use.
Whilst iRobot had sold more than 3 500 of its military and industrial robots worldwide by February 2011, in the same timeframe it had sold more than six million units of its domestic Roomba vacuum-cleaning and Scooba floor-washing robots. There are similarities in the systems and sensors used in both ranges of devices.
Standards central to robotics
Being essentially electromechanical systems, robots and automation machines that include electrotechnical parts depend on International Standards to operate properly and safely. Many of these are prepared by various IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and their SCs (Subcommittees), such as TC 47: Semiconductor devices, TC 44: Safety of machinery – Electrotechnical aspects, or SC 65 A: Industrial process measurement, control and automation – Systems aspects, which prepared the IEC 61508 series of International Standards on functional safety. As robots are introduced in more fields, more IEC TCs and SCs will be involved in the preparation of International Standards for robotics in their respective domains.